I used to lead a women’s singing ensemble. We tried a Bob Marley song once. One of the singers used to say: “If it sounds like the Women’s Institute sing The Rolling Stones, then we shouldn’t perform it!”. We didn’t.
I often get asked by choir members why we don’t do more pop songs. After all, they’re in English, popular and easily recognisable.
Here’s why we don’t do them.
it’s all about the instruments
Most people remember pop songs because of the guitar riff, or the drum break, or the keyboard solo. Personally I’m allergic to voices impersonating instruments. Why not just use a guitar? I get bored with ‘dum dum’ bass riffs. Why not use a double bass?
When you strip away the instrumentation, you’re often left with a very simple, banal melody.
pop melodies are tricksy
Pop songs are usually sung by a single lead voice. That lead voice usually has some pretty special qualities that we remember -- even if they can’t ‘sing’! If one person is singing the lead, then they can play with the timing to their hearts content, or they can sing really difficult rhythmic jazz lines.
Now you try and get 20 altos to sing that melody line precisely in time with each other – and with swing and syncopation.
pop is often sung in ‘American’
Even British pop bands sing like Americans. And if they’re not doing that, they’re singing in strong regional accents.
Most choirs are made up of people from all over who have been trained to blend their vowels. Imagine a big choir with their posh voices trying to articulate, but singing a funky pop song. Doesn’t work, does it?
I’ve tried to ask the choir to sing a bit more ‘American’, but it always ends up sounding Cornish!
only boy/ girl bands harmonise
You’re trying to create a fantastic SATB arrangement of a rock song when you realise that there are no harmonies on the original. Yes, it may be The Supremes, or Girls Aloud, but often the singers take turns at singing the lead, or have separate melody lines that they sing over the top. They don’t tend to harmonise with each other.
After you’ve added all these gorgeous harmonies you realise that you’ve destroyed the delicate melody! In the original, the harmonies live in the instrumental production so don’t interfere with the vocals.
Of course, you could make sure you always only do Westlife songs with the choir, but that’s a bit limiting.
lyrics are usually important
Forget the banal “boy meets girl, boy loses girl", girl falls in love with someone else” lyrics. Many pop songs tell stories or create fantastic wordscapes. We need to hear the lyrics clearly.
In the same way that trying to arrange ballads for choirs is a bad idea, lyric-based songs can easily fall flat.
There are too many words, they need to be clear but not over-enunciated, and the choir has to sing them in exact time for them to be heard properly. You can’t put too many harmonies in or the words will get lost. In short: why bother?
the exception that proves the rule
But there are some fantastic arrangements of pop songs out there. Although I must say that the majority stink!
The secret (I believe) is to not try to duplicate the original but to turn it into something different and special. Also, you need to choose your songs carefully. Most don’t work.
If you saw Wes Anderson’s movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, you will have heard Seu Jorge performing David Bowie songs in Portuguese on the acoustic guitar. It was like he’d written them himself because he made them uniquely his own. That’s the secret but it’s HARD! Make it sound like it was a choir song all along. Make people forget the original version.
show me I’m wrong
OK, OK, I’m wrong and you have countless examples of fantastic pop songs being sung by choirs. So let me know about them. I don’t guarantee to like them because ultimately it’s down to personal taste, but I’d be interested to hear some fine examples.
Chris Rowbury's website: chrisrowbury.com